At a time when rational discourse could help the country begin to heal, Democrats and Republicans aren’t even speaking the same language.

A 2017 study in Behavior Research Methods found that “Americans seem to speak two different ‘languages,’ politically implying different meanings in their mental representation of concepts. These differences have created subcultures in modern society that underline citizens’ political behaviors, along with a wide gulf that hinders effective political dialogues and communication.”

If we are to continue to talk with one another in this polarized day and age, a productive step in discussing sensitive topics would be to take a beat — and often, a breath — and define the terms in the conversation.

Language is malleable, not fixed; words expand and contract and accumulate and shed meaning over time. This semantic evolution can prohibit meaningful discussion both in public and private, as even close friends and family members often bandy words that mean different things to different people.

A recent example: The phrase “defund the police” ranges in meaning from abolishing policing to reallocating some funds to social services, depending on who is speaking. It’s a lightning rod for both parties, a rallying cry against an unequal system that deserves to be torn down for the left, and a chilling example of the left’s destructive goals for the right. Most Americans fall somewhere in the center of this conflict, though a growing number believe that the police treat Black Americans with more suspicion and hostility than white Americans, according to recent polling.

For another demonstration, take the definition of “racism.” Merriam-Webster, one of America’s most trusted dictionaries, updated the definition of “racism” in June. The entry now includes this addendum: “2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles; b: a political or social system founded on racism.” This is a significant departure from the earlier definition of racism, which still reads: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Those on the political left generally see racism as a systemic issue that America has failed to overcome, while those on the right often point out that individual instances of racism are not indicative of a continued systemic issue. Merriam-Webster’s addendum favors the progressive take.

At this time, political subtexts have infiltrated nearly every corner of American life, from corporate marketing and management to sports franchises to arts and culture. Conversations and disagreements are inevitable and should be welcomed for the albeit uncomfortable opportunity that they represent: the chance to change someone’s mind (or perhaps even more uncomfortably, your own).

To begin any conversation, a quick check to ensure that both parties understand the shorthand at play could prevent a great deal of confusion and frustration.

Take a breath. Define your terms. Above all, continue talking.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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